Taking theatre off dry land and into hydrotherapy pools is helping disabled children in every sense, says Biddy Passmore
Did you see her turning towards you? She never does that." "Did you see how he gave you eye contact? I've never seen that." These are comments of teachers and family members after watching profoundly disabled children enjoy a new and liberating theatrical experience. It's called Pool Piece and is the latest production by Oily Cart, a theatrical company that has spent more than 25 years working with young children and young people with autism and profound and multiple learning disabilities.
As its name suggests, Pool Piece is set in water. It is currently touring special schools in London and Hertfordshire, who find their hydrotherapy pools transformed for a week with underwater lighting, a great circular waterfall, mysterious mists and giant, gurgling bubbles.
The audience is highly select: two children and their carers or parents in the water, and teachers, family members and others watching on the poolside.
And the performers - poets and musicians - are in the pool too, wearing waterproof costumes and headgear to indicate their roles as Sponge, Umbrella Man and Gong (who plays the gamelan). There are songs and a script, but many of the children have little or no verbal language and respond with smiles, sounds - and squirts of water.
But respond they do. "The pool is just such a lovely experience, especially if you're normally in a wheelchair or in corsets and splints," says Tim Webb, Oily Cart's artistic director. "The children are in a relaxed and supportive environment and free to move in ways they are normally not capable of.
"Yesterday a child who is normally in a wheelchair found the whole experience extremely funny and was giggling with delight by the end. We think she was responding to the face of the performer, which - unusually for her - was at the same level."
Such intensive interaction and play is true to the approach of Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, Oily Cart's adviser, a senior psychology lecturer from Dundee University. She specialises in parent-infant interaction and has been following the production closely.
Each "performance" is a week-long process, starting with a dry day when company members in costume are seen around the school. For the rest of the week, the company works with 16 pupils, two at a time, in 40-minute sessions in the pool. Sessions are led by different characters each day.
The Oily Cart theatre company is funded by the Arts Council, the London borough of Wandsworth and fundraising. For more details see www.oilycart.org.uk.